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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TIME waits for no man - nor woman either, for that matter!



Another year is set to unscroll right before our eyes; the count-down is beginning. It’s a long-standing habit of mine to find some quiet time between Christmas and New Years to assess the year that has past. What worked; what didn’t. What do I wish I had done that I never started and conversely… What did I START that I wished I hadn’t!

Who was it that said an ‘unexamined life is not worth living?” I wouldn’t quite go that far - but it’s worth pausing a moment to acknowledge the joy we find in life. And, the first step to changing what does NOT work in your life is to acknowledge that, as well. If you meant to spend time writing this year and didn’t - maybe it’s time.

At www.Wordsmythe.ca I find tremendous joy in both writing scripts and in helping adults, teachers and even kids around the world figure out how movie stories work. It’s so cool to explain the basics of structure, show a film clip and then watch the ‘light’ go on in someone’s eyes as they start piecing together their own movie idea from the info I've just given them!

It’s really neat to listen to a student explain their story idea, and then watch as they begin to storyboard it right in front of my eyes. Writing stories for film is just so thrilling… but it’s work too. If you’re thinking of beginning your screenwriting career with a feature-length film (roughly 120 pages); don’t let the page count scare you though. EVERY single writer, famous or not so famous, stood exactly where you stand now - KNOWING NOTHING, but wanting to LEARN. Not knowing how doesn’t have to be a life sentence; you just have to tackle the learning in a way that works for you.

Find movies that have inspired you on DvD; then find the LINKS pages at www.Wordsmythe.ca (or Simplyscripts or others). Do this with several films you love and start to see the connection between the word-on-the-page and the finished movie images. Find books to read on screenwriting; read lots of them and then STOP and start figuring out how your movie idea might look IF it were a movie right now.

Take a course, IF that’s the way your brain works. Check out my ScriptTips on Twitter & subscribe. But most of all - DO IT. The movie in your head that you want to write is going to be way more FUN than anything you’ll see this year on TV. So go for it; make it happen this year. Don’t WAIT.

I do hope this helps motivate you to TRY. And of course, I’d love to see your work. Drop me a line at www.Wordsmythe.ca .

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Be CAREFUL about who you let influence your REWRITE!

One of the things you will always want to be clear about is WHO you let influence your writing. EVERYONE has an opinion… but not all opinions should be given equal weight. Once you finish your script; have worked through all the tweaks and fixes you found for yourself you’ll want to get opinions from others on it’s merits (and weaknesses).

The most important thing you should remember about feedback from others is you often get what you ask for. Most new writers start with the question ‘ WHAT do you think?” We’re afraid to ask for more. And so, you’ll often get answers like, ‘This is good. PERIOD!” That kind of feedback is nice… But not that helpful in fleshing out your script. Your uncle Arthur may be a great mechanic, but what does he know about movies and how they work?

So you’re best approach is to ask people who’s opinion on FILM and WRITING you know and respect; but don’t stop there. In addition to a hard copy of your script - give them a list of questions to answer that will provide PERTINENT INFORMATION for your next draft. The amount of effort you put into your questions will be directly related to the quality of the feedback you get. So think, What do you REALLY want to know about this draft of your screenplay?

For instance, is the OPENING SCENE gripping, engaging or off-putting? Is the MAIN CHARACTER and her/his dilemma compelling, charismatic or completely lame? Are the COMPLICATIONS the hero/heroine encounters real to the world they inhabit or pasted on for show? And finally, is the ENDING convincing and satisfying?

See what I mean, when I say that you get the kind of feedback you ask for? Simply getting solid feedback on these four questions should give you a good shot at starting your rewrite. For a more detailed critique questionnaire, write me at www.Wordsmythe.ca and I’ll send you my own script critique template for FREE. I want your script to be the best that you can make it and I’ll help as often as I can. But when you win that first important screenplay contest… mention my name!

I hope all this helps. And I wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How can I CREATE characters that are radically different than ME?

Your question strikes at the very heart of the writing experience.... 
do we only ever write ourselves into our creations or do we 
consciously choose an alternative route and try to write something 
other than ourselves and our own experience?

Now, many people will 
argue that no matter how hard you try to write outside yourself.... 
YOU are in every single piece you write. And I sincerely hope so... 
it is your creative energy that makes a piece/or character 'live' and 
breathe on it's own.

BUT to answer (or attempt to) your question. Whether you actively 
choose to write characters (& I think we're referring to main 
characters here) whose emotional 'toolbox' or psychological makeup is 
radically different than yours is really immaterial. You may write incredibly intense but self- contained characters that really 
challenge actors to dig deep to express ALL these characters ARE with 
just a few small gestures - because that's who you are. OR you may 
study minutely the mannerisms of people you meet that are LIKE the character you 
want to create.... and bring life to a character on the page that 
mirrors those mannerisms - even though they are not your own.

You don't have to be a wildly emotional person to create that kind of 
character on the page. But your characters' emotions need to come from 
a REAL place inside of you that allows you to project all of the 
nuances of that person. So you make a study of people you meet that 
are like your character...and build on that - starting first and 
foremost with actual emotions - love, hate, anger, jealousy. But I 
want to reiterate - wildly emotional or intensely withheld doesn't 
matter.... write what suits the character and the STORY you're creating.

And if you choose to focus on a particular 'type' of character.... and 
you create a series of films about people who are bright, articulate 
and very considered with their emotional displays.... actors & 
audiences will still love them IF they are well drawn and bring us 
stories that illuminate for us something of our own lives.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay . I’d love to read your work at Wordsmythe.ca

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Your movie story starts with the very FIRST IMAGE on the screen.

The power of image is demonstrated over and over again in film as we use our minds to scroll back over movies that have affected us deeply. Whether it is the famous dying words of Citizen Kane - ‘Rosebud’ that sets the story in motion. Or the loop-de-loops of the flying bug at the beginning of ‘Men in Black’ or the shelf of toys at the opening of Monsters Inc. Each image starts us on our journey.

In the case of Monsters Inc, the shelf loaded with toys is a red herring. It’s put there to lull you into believing you’re inhabiting a human world. A safe world, a world where nothing scary can happen; AND then, POW. In minutes you’ve been up-ended into a world that isn’t human at all - a MONSTER world that actually preys on our most vulnerable element - our children.

So, if you’re engaged in the act of creating a screenplay, I ask you; what IS the first image that flashes onto the screen at fade up? Will it land us exactly in the middle of the world in which the story takes place? Or, will it simply be used to lure us in and have the rug pulled out from under our feet moments later.

The act of writing is all about making choices and that first image is only one in a long series of story choices that will shape your audiences reaction to the film you’re crafting. So give it some serious thought as to how you will use that first image. Is it bait? Or is it a straight forward spring board into your story. Does it set the tone, the mood or the era for us? What does that first image accomplish?

The same is true of how we (as the audience) encounter your hero/heroine for the first time. In Monsters Inc, the first time we see James P. Sullivan (Sully) he’s sleeping. Nothing could be more innocent than that. The writer’s are telling us that Sully is as innocent and likable as the little children he spends every night scaring into tears.

Those first moments are important. Use them knowingly and with care; from them springs your story!

I hope this helps. And good luck with your writing. I can’t wait to read the result!

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

IF you can TALK, you can WRITE - WHY take a writing course!


My dad always says this, writing’s not so special - IF you can talk you can write!

You’re dad’s actually right! I say that too - fairly often! But, biggest difference between talkers and writers; especially screenwriters, is whether you actually possess the determination to STOP talking and force yourself to sit down and write.

I assure you all - we (as homo sapiens) KNOW how stories work! We've 
been telling each other stories for 60,000 - 70,000 maybe even 100,000 
years. If you look at the cave art in places like Chauvet - it was ancient people trying to VISUALIZE for their audience the thrilling wild org hunt they just witnessed…Or something like that. We are still doing that today with motion pictures.

What writing classes or seminars do is first of all give you a language or terminology for telling stories. It’s hard to talk to someone else about your writing unless you have a common language or terminology - so classes can provide some formal names for 
different portions of story craft. Words like protagonist, 3 act structure 
and opening scene - montages... that kind of stuff.

The other thing that a formal writing class can do for you is help organize what you already know from years of telling your own stories to friends, 
classmates and acquaintances. So classes can GIVE you terminology for what you DO. And can help you SEE the inherent structure in the stories you’ve already been telling out loud.

AND FINALLY, organized writing classes may help you put your BUM IN THE CHAIR in front of a computer and put your ideas on paper. Classes aren’t for everyone; but they can provide some useful tools for starting the journey or even stoking the fire for putting ideas on paper when you’re not sure how to pursue your goals.

I hope this helps. AND, if you DO decide to put your ideas on the page - I'd love to help..... Wordsmythe.ca I’d love to read your work!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Your movie starts with the VERY FIRST image on the screen!

The power of image is demonstrated over and over again in film as we use our minds to scroll back over movies that have affected us deeply. Whether it is the famous dying words of Citizen Kane - ‘Rosebud’ that sets the story in motion. Or the loop-de-loops of the flying bug at the beginning of ‘Men in Black’ or the shelf of toys at the opening of Monsters Inc. Each image starts us on our journey with the hero/heroine -leading us into their world.

In the case of Monsters Inc, the shelf loaded with toys is a red herring. It’s put there to lull you into believing you’re inhabiting a human world. A safe world, a world where nothing scary can happen; AND then, POW. In minutes you’ve been up-ended into a world that isn’t human at all - a MONSTER world that actually preys on our most vulnerable element - our children.

So, if you’re engaged in the act of creating a screenplay, I ask you; what IS the first image that flashes onto the screen at fade up? Will it land us exactly in the middle of the world in which the story takes place? Or, will it simply be used to lure us in and have the rug pulled out from under our feet moments later.

The act of writing is all about making choices and that first image is only one in a long series of story choices that will shape your audiences reaction to the film you’re crafting. So give it some serious thought as to how you will use that first image. Is it bait? Or is it a straight forward spring board into your story. Does it set the tone, the mood or the era for us? What does that first image accomplish?

The same is true of how we (as the audience) encounter your hero/heroine for the first time. In Monsters Inc, the first time we see James P. Sullivan (Sully) he’s sleeping. Nothing could be more innocent than that. The writer’s are telling us that Sully is as innocent and likable as the little children he spends every night scaring into tears.

Those first moments are important. Use them knowingly and with care; from them springs your story!

I hope this helps. And good luck with your writing. I can’t wait to read the result!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

How do I make a character, who's kind of shy, show his emotions?

Writing really is the study of human beings and how they express 
themselves. Every opportunity you can - EXAMINE (like a being from 
another world) how the humans that surround you express the vast array 
of emotions that color our daily lives.

You’re right, some people are withheld - 
the merest lift of an eyebrow says volumes about what's going on in 
their heads. Other are like fireworks displays - about everything; 
love, hate, happiness, boredom it all gets colored with some 
incredible display of emotion. The films that affect us the most are 
the films where the writer has created a VISUAL language that relays 
even the tiniest detail of a characters INNER landscape (emotional 
landscape) to us, the audience.

So, give some thought to the multitude of NON VERBAL bits of 
communication that are peppered throughout your day... your child 
opens it's arms wide for a hug when you come home; but doesn't SAY 
anything. Your boss merely crooks a finger in your direction and 
disappears into her office. You know you've been summoned. At a chai 
shop, a handsome fellow merely meets your eyes over the lip of his 
cup, which mostly hides his smile of acknowledgment.... you TELL ME 
what that means!!

Start cataloging in your mind the various ways people SHOW 
us every day what they're thinking... instead of using words. Do this for a 
month and you will be on your way to understanding one of the key 
elements of screenwriting. Show - don't TELL what the characters are 
thinking.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay . Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I want to write something completely different; not the same old 3 ACT structure!

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That desire to create something different is going to serve you well in the writing process; hang on tight to that.

But first, let’s consider a couple of questions. WHO IS YOUR INTENDED AUDIENCE for this film? Are you thinking yours would be an ‘art house’ crowd? Maybe you’re planning an experimental film? Or are you hoping for a mainstream distribution deal? The closer your intended audience is to the mainstream, the more thoroughly your story should be grounded in the standard 3 act structure; beginning, middle and end (or resolution).

Next, let’s look at your bias against the 3 act structure. It IS true some really terrible movies have been created within the context of this format. But WOW, what about the really inventive films that have also adhered to it? Films like Shakespeare in Love, Being John Malkovich, Juno, The Fall, American Beauty are all firmly grounded in the 3 act structure too. What gives?

Many beginning screenwriters lay some really BAD MOVIES at the feet of the 3 act structure. But writing screenplays is a lot like writing sonnets (you know, Shakespeare - iambic pentameter) in that it’s a strict format that can produce some absolutely timeless writing… like Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer Day.” Or the really horrible piece I wrote my sophomore year in college. I had the format down pat, but Shakespeare would have rolled over in his grave.

Great sonnets, like great screenplays, challenge writers to search for a completely fresh aspect on a timeless theme - and then test their inventiveness in pouring their story idea into a ‘jug’ of specific proportions. The bad movies you’ve seen aren’t a result of the 3 act structure - but a result of the lack of skill or persistence on the part of the writer.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay - and let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Writing, and espcially SCRENNWRITNG is all about making choices!

CHAPTER ONE of the Screenwriting Essentials Online Tutorial & workbook discuss STORY CONCEPT and idea.

From the very first IMAGE you see on the screen you are telling your audience what to expect in this visual journey they are about to embark upon with you. That first image is the first step on the journey. I always say that writing is about choices and your choices for telling your story start with that very first image. Make sure you're clear about what you're saying.

Every artist faces a similar decision making process whether it’s a oil painter, a photographer or you the screenwriter. Visually speaking, you compose each scene - you choose the location (what does it say) to the viewer? You choose the apparel of each actor (to some extent - what does that say?) You choose the WORDS they speak. What is going on beneath the words that actually come out of the actors mouth? Are they saying ‘I LOVE YOU, I love you... while they shower each other with trash from a nearby garbage can?

Now that doesn’t mean that you become a ‘control freak’ as a writer. You leave many, many choices to the director and the actor and the set designer and the locations manager. BUT, WHEN IT”S IMPORTANT to our understanding of the story or the emotional landscape of the heroine/hero you create concrete details in your cinematic story choices that make that clear.

There is a power and a responsibility in every story choice you make as a writer. With proper planning - you can learn to revel in the choosing - not be frozen in place - unable to act; or stymied with indecision.


I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Friday, July 30, 2010

BEGINNING, MIDDLE AND END: The Three Act Structure at it's most basic!


I just finished teaching at a prestigious boys school, a two-week course on filmmaking for summer term. The first week was dedicated to creating a film-story idea and creating the storyboards to illustrate the fiction. The second week was dedicated to shooting the TWO chosen film scripts from the first weeks work. I am really proud of my students work - see youtube link. In total, they really only had 3 days to craft their story and another 3 to shoot the short. They did it and the filmstories totally work! With tweaking they will work really well.

Monday was spent going over the basic story structure for film - THREE ACTS (beginning, complications and then the end). After screening & lecture, they did an in-class writing exercise based on creating fiction from a random picture, torn from a magazine, that was handed to them only moments before.

Tuesday, we talked about ‘framing the shot’ and did another writing exercise. I divided the class into writing teams, so they’d have someone to help generate story ideas. And they began to write their own film piece. We watched some Pixar shorts to see how they were presented. I gave them a sample of my storyboards for a Pixar short; and we viewed the film again - with the storyboards in hand.

By Wednesday, they were well on their way. We watched another film and talked about world building and complications! By the start of class Thursday they had their short piece written; and now it was time to storyboard it. Final storyboards were presented on Friday morning; and the class selected which two films to shoot based on the 6 questions I suggest screenwriters answer for themselves (FILMMAKING WIZARDRY) in their script.

They had the weekend to prepare their shot lists and on Monday they rehearsed actors and camera moves. Tuesday they shot their films. (One film had to completely reshoot 90% of it's footage; but made it’s deadline too). Wednesday was pick-up shots and editing. Thursday was music track, titles and glitches. FRIDAY, THE SCREENING for parents, friends and the whole school!

The students were all between the ages of 8 and 16 years old. We had ten great story ideas submitted on that first Friday; and far more than the TWO could have gone to camera. This underscores my theory that everyone really does have a movie idea in their head… And that if you ask the right questions, you can get them get it out and onto the page!

I hope this helps. And I wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

FILMMAKING WIZARDRY - Movie Making with Kids (or 1st time Filmmakers)


This book grew out of my desire to pass along to my own daughter a step-by-step guide on how to make her own first film. It's small enough to fit in a pocket or back pack; but full of important information on ALL the steps involved in the process of creating your first film.

Use it, and all the checklists it provides, to guide you through starting your movie making career today. Check out all the LINKS at the back to expand your knowledge. AND pass the title along to teachers, parents and friends!

AVAILABLE NOW at http://www.wordsmythe.ca

Thursday, July 1, 2010

I read somewhere that you encourage your students to make LISTS of STORY IDEAS.

I think what you’re referring to was said in an online discussion group.

A second really common bit of advice for any creative person is to have an ‘Ideas Diary’. This can be as simple as a tiny spiral notebook that fits in your pocket or backpack or can sit by your bedside or your computer. Most likely you’ll find that you ‘hatch’ great story ideas at the oddest moments; just before sleep hits you is fairly common.

And one of the other most common occurrences is just as you are sitting down to really tackle a tough piece of writing. Human beings are escape artists at heart! It takes discipline to put yourself in front of the computer every day that you’re scheduled to write and ‘make’ it happen on the page. Far easier to simply play the story (any story) in your head, scrolling through the action but never really writing it down. It is this discipline that makes writing hard. Everyone has great movie ideas but very few people take the time to acquire the discipline to transform those ideas onto the page.

And that’s where the LIST comes into play. Often, fantastic story ideas come out of that desire NOT to be nailed down to a schedule. USE THAT; in fact learn to use all the tricks your mind will play on you to your advantage. Do take five minutes (not five hours) recording this NEW , great idea in your story diary. But DON’T GET SIDE-TRACKED from your current goal; FINISHING YOUR FIRST DRAFT.

Remember, that is the only one rule in beginning that first draft screenplay; FINISH IT. Everything else is probably fixable in a rewrite. But you really can’t fix, what isn’t on the page. So record all the new story ideas that will come your way, while you’re acquiring the discipline to finish that first great story idea that got you started!


I hope that helps. And I wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

You always hear more experienced writers saying you should 'write what you know'.... what does that mean?

Write what you know is probably the oldest piece of advice there is for aspiring writers. But just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s BAD… or necessarily good either. Here’s my take on what it means.

Writing what you know doesn’t mean that if you janitor at night to pay the bills while you learn the craft of writing that you only ever get to write movies about janitors. What I do believe ‘writing what you know’ refers to is what you 'know' emotionally.

Screenplays are driven by the ups and downs of the main characters quest. The ups and downs refer to both the storyline (or action) but also your heroine/hero’s emotions. And this is where many new writers come up short. They often side-step tackling the really BIG EMOTIONS. Oh sure, we see death scenes, sex scenes, pillage scenes, car chases & death from car chases - but what we don’t see is REAL, GENUINE heart-felt emotions that arise from these events.

Often, the new writer doesn’t show us the ‘FALLOUT’ from these events in our hero’s life. And yet, it’s exactly that exploration of emotional subtext that makes film REAL to us the audience. It’s that bond of shared emotional experience that connects us to the heroine/hero in the end. So, ‘write what you know’ means write from a place of emotional honesty. Either take the risk to write from your very own place of emotional experience. Or take the time to understand and EMPATHIZE with someone who has lived the experience you are going to write about.

LIVE it, (the emotion you’re writing about); FEEL it if you’re hoping to write it and ultimately convince an audience to believe it and then WRITE it. We all have a 6th sense concerning emotional honesty… discover yours, and write from that place for compelling screenplays. That’s my take on what the phrase - write what you know - is really advocating to new writers.

I hope this helps. And I wish you luck with your screenplay - let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Recently I particiapted in a 'cold reading' night and my script was critiqued by the resident judging panel.

The overall verdict was that I was a smart writer and the script had real promise but no heart. What does that mean?

First of all, congratulations are in order. #1 - You finished a script. #2 - You risked submitting it to a ‘cold read’. Wow, that’s fabulous.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a COLD READING is a gathering where a group of actors meet, are handed a script and within about 30 minutes start acting it out. Often, it’s just the opening act (or first 30 pages) of a feature script that’s read. And it’s one of the scariest rides on the planet and one of the most exhilarating! Hearing your words in an actors’ mouth is one of the BEST WAYS to gauge the effectiveness of your dialogue and pacing of your writing.

And as you found out, a cold reading can also reveal some of the weaknesses of your script that might have slipped by some of your other critiques. From the comments you received it sounds as if you were shanghaied by the LEFT side of your brain. As many of you know, who follow this screenwriting blog, I believe any really good story is a balancing act of RIGHT brain creativity and LEFT brain structure.

Really well-plotted thrillers and heist movies delight us with the mastery of the turns and twists of their plot. (LEFT BRAIN). But if they contain heart-wrenching scenes of loss or betrayal those deeply rooted emotional stories come from the RIGHT BRAIN. Right brain function is all about universality. (Jill Bolte Taylor’s fabulous, fabulous recorded TED talk - http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/jill_bolte_taylor_s_powerful_stroke_of_insight.html ) gives a beautiful and passionate explanation of the relationship between the two brain hemispheres and creativity.

What’s probably missing in your piece is that moment (s) where the camera focuses on the protagonist and we get to SEE their pain/reaction/emotional response. We need emotional connection to the main character to actually care enough to plow through their story with them. EARLY on in your script give us an emotional LINK to your hero/heroine and then reinforce it several times throughout the story. Those emotional ties will keep us cheering your character on until the bitter or sweet finale of the film.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your rewrite. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Monday, May 17, 2010

I ALWAYS get side-lined fixing stuff; and never seem to finish a script!

I took a screenwriting class with a buddy and while he just kind of plowed through his first draft I got kind of side-lined by fixing stuff. I still haven’t finished and he’s on to his second script. What gives… am I just slow?

Writing is one of the strangest undertakings. We are seduced by a story idea in our head and practically driven crazy until we succumb and begin to put it on paper.

And then, the real torture begins. We write a scene or two, or even a whole first act. And then inevitably we begin to second guess ourselves as we soldier on through the next tough scene sequence. The main characters name isn’t strong enough. The villain isn’t evil enough. The opening scene isn’t fresh enough. The scene transitions aren’t transity enough; and so on, and so on, and so on.

Some of these comments are quite accurate. Your main character does have a dumb name at the moment. And maybe those scene transitions really do need work. But guess what - NOT NOW. Your only job in the FIRST DRAFT is to FINISH. Repeat this to yourself over and over again when that little inner CRITIC would have you go back and putter with the first act. Resist the temptation and keep moving forward; that’s the only way to finish your first draft... Never look back!

But, don’t lock up that inner critic and throw away the key. Just throw him or her a bone. One of the best gimmicks you can implement for yourself is to station a clipboard and pen next to your computer. EVERY SINGLE TIME your inner critic even whispers a suggestion - mollify her by writing it down on the clipboard right next to the keyboard. VOILA! your inner critic ‘feels’ heard…and then deigns to leave you alone for a while so you can actually write. AND, in addition to finishing your script - you also wind up with a dandy blueprint for your first REWRITE by the time you type, The End.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay - and let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

What's so special about WRITERS. I hear great stories everyday at my local coffee house!

Well, maybe I’m the wrong person to ask why writers are so special! I mean, I am biased…

And you’re right, I bet you DO hear fabulous stories every day at your coffee house. I mean we all do, don’t we. We both tell great stories to our friends and listen raptly as they tell stories back to us. It’s so cool, that process. But writers take the process one step further and WRITE it down and polish the telling of it.

And if you believe the Aborigines of Australia we’ve been doing this as human beings for probably 100,000 years. I tell my students that human beings have story telling practically hard-wired into their DNA. And this is a really important point for every writer on the planet to remember.

That story telling hard-wiring means that your audience inherently knows a good story from a BAD ONE - it’s in their genetic coding. So don’t try to bullshit your audience with a half-baked piece of storytelling pie that none of them will buy. They’re too smart to be bamboozled. They may not have $2 words to tell you why a story isn’t compelling; but their story radar spots a fake just as easily as… well, you would!

At the same time, don’t be discouraged at this news. Just recognize that IF your audience comes equipped with this fantastic array of biological story detectors - SO DO YOU. Where writers get into trouble is when they get lazy. Their bio detector is telling them what they just wrote is crap - and they waffle about fixing it. It’ll DO. I can pass it off. NO ONE will notice… NOT! Everyone will notice. IF you’re radar is telling you it needs fixing - FIX IT. (after you’ve completed the first draft, mind you!). Don’t whimp out on us, give us a story that really FRYS all that built in radar. That’s what we really want in movies is stories that make us sit up and take notice; stories that surprise us!

I hope that helps! And I wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

I read all the time writers should SHOW not TELL; but what does it really mean?

Next to ‘write what you know’ SHOW don’t TELL is one of the oldest pieces of advice in screenwriting; and rightly so! Screenwriting is a visual medium - we’re creating pictures with words to tell our story. That eventual translation to film is what makes screenwriting so tricky… and interesting. IF it were only going to remain as words - it would be a novel or a short story.

So the first thing you need to do is figure out what your character’s is feeling in every single scene in which they participate in your story. And then you need to figure out an action - that is true to your character, that SHOWS or telegraphs that feeling. This can sometimes be hard! Let’s try one simple, basic emotion on for size and see what happens.

Anger is a really basic emotion but everyone presents or displays their anger in a different way. One character might blow up, lose their cool, or clobber someone - you get the picture. But these actions are very basic; and if you choose them - you create a very BASIC CHARACTER.

Now, what if INSTEAD of blowing up when provoked to anger - your character CRIES? How does that change our understanding of WHO your character is? Does it make your character more childlike, more female - or does it change the quality of the emotion? Is it not really anger now - but more like FRUSTRATION that your character is displaying?

Are you starting to get the picture? The basic emotion that your character is FEELING is conveyed to the AUDIENCE through ACTION. That is how we 'read' or know what is going on inside your character. After the writers creates the script; then the actor gets involved and adds all kinds of nuance or subtleties to your character. She decides that your character BLOWS UP as you’ve written her - but then GETS THE SHAKES afterwards. How does that embellish our understanding of what the character is feeling? It certainly adds a new dimension to the basic emotion of anger, doesn’t it? This artistic choice by the actor, shows us a different layer or quality of the characters internal world.

I hope that helps. And I wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

I always INTEND to sit down and write, but my girlfriend kind of resents the time I spend doodling on the computer!

Relationships are tricky at the best of times… and I definitely don’t want to get into a ‘Dear Abby’ advice column here. But it is possible to participate in a meaningful relationship and still write. The key is careful apportioning of your time.

First of all, ARE YOU doodling on the computer or are you actually sitting and writing? This is an important distinction as much for your girlfriend’s peace of mind as your own as a writer. Everyone has days or nights when stuff just doesn’t flow. But at the same time, IF you did thorough planning prior to beginning to write you should know what needs to be done each and every time you sit down to write. AND, you should do it.

What you write on those nights may be crap. Crap happens. At the same time, it is NOT our job to judge as we write. OUR ONLY JOB, IN THE FIRST DRAFT, IS TO FINISH. Ask your girlfriend (or boyfriend) to embroider that for you as a wall hanging. That IS your only job this time around; to finish this draft.

The other thing you should DO is make a commitment to writing; to WRITING TIME. Screenplays don’t write themselves. So book an appointment with yourself - and take it as seriously as if it were the big ticket opportunity you hope your screenwriting may become some day. Take it seriously now, so you will BE taken seriously later.

And your girlfriend? Well, you might try engaging her in the process. Try READING some of your work to her; get her involved. Be careful though… she may start canceling appointments away if she likes what you read to her, in an effort to keep your nose to the grindstone. Involving loved ones in our quest can become a double-edged sword.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay - and let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I Don't Know How Many Screenplays I've Started; but can never finish!

Writing screenplays is one of the easiest jobs you’ll ever do; and one of the HARDEST. It’s easy, because you get fired up by this fantastic idea that you know will be killer on the screen, and that enthusiasm makes you just jump right in and start typing.

And it’s hard because you run out of that ‘start up’ energy often long before you get to those famous words - The End. That ‘sticking point’ is the exact spot where real writers show their mettle. But they don’t survive on pure grit alone; real writers have a whole arsenal of tricks up their sleeve. The most important tool they use - is PLANNING.

Sounds kind of mundane, doesn’t it? Planning - like birth control; can’t we just ‘be’ in the moment and jump into this thing, honey? We can… and many do. I don’t how many late nights I've spent staring at a script I HAD LOVED six months before and now loathed because I couldn’t seem to tinker away all its flaws. Screenwriting has taught me patience and control.

I urge all of my students to create a number of tools while the novelty of their movie idea still has them panting to write. It’s then, when you’re desperate to get at your computer and type, that you really should rein in your enthusiasm and answer some really important questions.

Like: Who’s you main character? What is it they want? What gets in their way of acquiring/ or achieving this goal? How badly do they want what they seek? Who are the important people in their life and how do those relationships complicate their quest. Take these questions and create a logline, a 5 page treatment and a working title and you’re on your way. Throw in the opening and closing scenes for your three acts and you should be ready for any thing!

Once you’ve got this material firmly in hand, you’re ready to unleash the hounds and hit the keyboard running. With planning, and careful conservation of that ‘start up’ energy you may find yourself at ‘The End’ before you know it!

I hope this helps. And I wish you luck with your screenplay. Let me know when you’ve completed your script; I’d love to read your work!

Monday, March 1, 2010

The 3 ACT STRUCTURE is so boring - I want to write something completely NEW!

That desire to create something different is going to serve you well in the writing process; hang on tight to that.

But first, let’s consider a couple of questions. WHO IS YOUR INTENDED AUDIENCE for this film? Are you thinking yours would be an ‘art house’ crowd? Maybe you’re planning an experimental film? Or are you hoping for a mainstream distribution deal? The closer your intended audience is to the mainstream, the more thoroughly your story should be grounded in the standard 3 act structure; beginning, middle and end (or resolution).

Next, let’s look at your bias against the 3 act structure. It IS true some really terrible movies have been created within the context of this format. But WOW, what about the really inventive films that have also adhered to it? Films like 'Being John Malkovich, Juno, The Fall, American Beauty' are all firmly grounded in the 3 act structure too. What gives?

Many beginning screenwriters lay some really BAD MOVIES at the feet of the 3 act structure. But writing screenplays is a lot like writing sonnets (you know, Shakespeare - iambic pentameter) in that it’s a strict format that can produce some absolutely timeless writing… like Shakespeare’s “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer Day.” Or the really horrible assignment I wrote my sophomore year in college. I had the format down pat, but Shakespeare would have rolled over in his grave.

Great sonnets, like great screenplays, challenge writers to search for a completely fresh aspect on a timeless theme - and then test their inventiveness in pouring their story idea into a ‘jug’ of specific proportions. The bad movies you’ve seen aren’t a result of the 3 act structure - but a result of the lack of skill or persistence on the part of the writer.

I hope this helps. And I do wish you luck with your screenplay - and let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

GENRE whets the story appetite of your audience. Know it and use it effectively!

I always say that GENRE is like the smell of good food cooking. It sets you up for the story adventure that lies ahead. It gets your audience in the mood. It’s the appetizer that tempts their palate.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, GENRE is the way we categorize stories - like mystery, action-adventure, drama, comedy, buddy films. I could go on and on - but I think you probably get the picture.

Genre is important for marketing purposes. What’s the first thing you ask when a friend calls you up and says, ‘Do you want to go see XYZ movie?” You say, “What IS it?” You might not use the word, genre…. But that’s what you mean. From your film-going experience you already know what genres you prefer to see. Maybe action-adventure, or comedies but man, never westerns. See what I mean?

The thing about genre is that is more than mere categorization though. It is the process by which we begin the storytelling journey. And it’s important to understand for a number of different reasons. First of all, IF a film is billed in a particular genre - say Comedy. The audience is going to expect to LAUGH. A western? They expect cowboys! So as a writer, you need to be aware of what expectations an audience will have for the particular genre of film you are WRITING.

So what genre ARE you writing with your film? Family drama, biographical drama, or something else? The first thing you need to do then is identify your genre and then WATCH a number of different films from the same genre to begin to figure out what the signifiers are for it. Really watch several good films from your chosen genre and note what elements give your particular genre its’ shape. And then make certain those types of elements are included in your own storyline.

Genre signifiers are like a road map for your audience or highway signs that they can subconsciously check off and say, “Oh, okay. I know where were going.”

I hope this helps. And good luck with your writing. I can’t wait to read the result!

Monday, February 1, 2010

I've got a GREAT movie idea; but don't know how to start!

And it’s no wonder; we see the end result of screenplays all the time on TV, at the movie theater and when we rent a DVD, but very few people have actually READ a screenplay. And frankly that is where every aspiring screenwriter should begin; by reading.

The best way to go about this is to visit a website like www.dailyscript.com or www.simplyscipts.com and download the scripts for a couple of mainstream movies. Then read them from cover to cover.

Now go to your local video store and rent the DVD of the scripts you just read. With script in hand, put the disc in to play and STUDY the first 10-15 minutes of the film. Actively compare it to the script. Pay particular attention to the opening image that sets the story in motion or signals ground zero for the storyline.

The next thing you should really examine is the way the script moves the action from scene to scene. NOTICE the slug lines (INT: APARTMENT - DAY) and the often ‘brief’ descriptive text that follows it. Pay attention to the DIALOGUE as it’s delivered by the actors - and as it’s written. How much direction is in the text and how much seems to be the result of collaboration between actors and the director? And finally, pay attention to PACING - how quickly the film & script move the action along as they ‘set up’ the story and the main character’s quest.

The more screenplays you read the more comfortable you will find yourself with the strict formatting structure once you sit down to put you own great idea to paper.

Good luck with it - and let me know when you’ve completed your script. I’d love to read your work!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Your world is ALIVE with story possibilities!

WELCOME TO THE NEW YEAR.... and another year of Screenwriting Tips from Wordsmythe.ca.


Let's start at the beginning for those just joining us.One of the most frequently asked questions at my public seminars is “Where do I get my story ideas?” as if there is some magical place or supermarket where more experienced writers find good story ideas on a shelf. Well, I have a secret for you…. the supermarket for stories is called LIFE.


I am honestly not being flip in my response - but challenging you to start looking around you at life itself. Your world is ALIVE with story possibilities…. you just need to train yourself to begin to see them. And that training begins with the actual writing.


Check out this link to see how one writer began to see the possibilities around her. http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html


As you struggle to harness the creative energy that compelled you to begin the process of writing - you change it and channel it to where you want it to go. You move from asking yourself what IF or HOW come….. to something far more concrete. You move to I DID, or they DID, or your hero did…. Something - which started a journey for the both of you. And now you just have to see it through to the end.


And as you write and make choices for your characters based on who you think they are - you grow as a person, as a craftsperson and as an imaginative being. You grow to trust the intuitive side of your brain (right) to come up with answers for where the road map side (left) says you have to turn next to keep the momentum of the story moving forward. And as you see more of your inner world of story - you begin to see more of the story possibilities for the outer world too. Each feeds the other, in turn.


The second most frequent question that I hear is, “What makes a good story?” And again, not intending any kind of humor at all - I answer, YOU make a good story. Anything at all can BE a story ! But it is the choices the writer makes in telling the story that give it depth, and humanity and emotion. You, the writer, will determine how much of your own passion and wit and personality you will RISK pouring into your characters and their lives. The more you risk, the greater your chances for outstanding success. Great stories are not created by writers who are afraid to venture into the darkest corners of their (or their characters) psyches. You can’t expect your audience to FEEL big emotions if you aren’t willing to feel them as you WRITE.


As an exercise, watch a movie or read a book that makes you uncomfortable emotionally; not just antsy - but really uncomfortable. Once you’ve finished watching the film all the way through…. Ask yourself why you were so uncomfortable. Try to imagine how the writer felt as she/ he created the scenes that made you squirm the most.


We tell stories for any number of reasons, but the best stories MOVE people to FEEL things. The best stories seduce the viewer / or reader into identifying completely with the world of the main character - their hopes, their dreams and their calamities. You can’t create that unless you LIVE IT as you write.


Check out these LINKS to my own 'story' that I wrote and started shooting right on my own kitchen table over Christmas. There has never been a better time to be a screenwriting. Just start writing now!! AND ENJOY....


The School of Practical Wizardry on You Tube: my tiny mini-series

Chapter ONE - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbNz_T7bR38
Chapter TWO - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jM4CnLSafA
Chapter THREE - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEkAoooUZU0


See you in 2 weeks for more screenwriting advice. And I hope this helps you make the leap to writing!!